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Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Murder as a Fine Art

by David Morrell

Other authors: Peggy Leith Anderson (Proofreader), William Drennan (Copy editor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Thomas De Quincey (1)

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Summary: In 1811, more than seventy years before Jack the Ripper, a series of grisly murders known as the Ratcliffe Highway killings terrified England. They were so well known that Thomas de Quincey, best known for his scandalous "Confessions of an Opium Eater", which described his intense opium addiction, also published a detailed essay on the killings called "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts". When a copy-cat murder is committed in 1854, the details of the grisly scene is enough to spark a panic -- if someone repeats the first of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, they're likely to repeat the rest, and no one is safe. Detective Ryan of Scotland Yard is under immense pressure to solve the case as rapidly as possible, but is it the original killer returned, someone who's read de Quincey's essay and is using it for a guide, or is the murderer de Quincey - who just happens to be in London with his daughter at the time - himself?

Review: I am generally favorably disposed towards historical mysteries, especially historical murder mysteries, so it's probably no surprise that I enjoyed this book. However, it does have some elements that set it apart from other books in this genre that I thought I'd call out. First, this book is based on (or grounded in?) real events. Despite me never having heard of either before reading this book, both Thomas de Quincey (and his writings) and the Ratcliffe Highway murders are real -- only the 1854 copy-cat murders are fiction. The set-up - what would happen if there had been a copy-cat? - is so clear and so grounded in the real world history and personalities that the narrative seems almost effortless. Morrell did what I want my historical fiction to do: find some piece of history that I don't know about and make it live. He also did a good job of bringing the 1850s London to life, particularly the less posh elements of society, and the attitudes towards women and immigrants.

The story rotates in viewpoint among several characters, primarily alternating between the detectives investigating the case and excerpts from de Quincey's daughter's journal (which, seriously, even at the time no one is journaling with that much detail). Morell also starts many chapters with a third-person omniscient brief exposition regarding some element of London society or history, which sounds like it might be distracting, but which I thought made the whole thing feel like an appropriately Victorian pastiche. I enjoyed all of the characters, particularly Constable Becker, a young policeman who is determined to use this case to prove his worthiness as an Inspector. I also thought that the mystery was well done, with clues doled out at a good pace (including chapters from the killer's point of view), and ultimately having a solution that made sense with the rest of the story. There was some sense of having one too many elements involved - there was a subplot (or not even; it wasn't developed well enough to merit the name) involving political unrest in Europe at the time that I didn't think added much to the story and could easily have been omitted. But overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and it's inspired me to go pick up some of de Quincey's writings for myself. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like the historical mysteries featuring Jack the Ripper (or other novels set in the slums of Victorian London), this is definitely worth adding to your reading list. It reminded me most of The Meaning of Night in tone, and The Solitary House in content. ( )
  fyrefly98 | Jul 20, 2017 |
Writers of historical mysteries have turned everyone from Bertie, Prince of Wales, to Mark Twain to Groucho Marx into an amateur sleuth, but David Morrell's choice of writer Thomas De Quincey as his hero may be the most inspired of them all, even if De Quincey is little known today. If his name is recognized it is probably as the author of "Confessions of an Opium Eater" (1822) in which he describes his addiction to the opium-loaded drug laudanum after first taking it for pain relief. To support both his habit and his large family, he sold countless essays on a variety of subjects to British publications.

It is another of De Quincey's writings, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1827) that Morrell uses as a launchpad for his 2013 novel, the first in a series, "Murder as a Fine Art." De Quincey wrote about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell imagines that, decades later, the crimes by the Ratcliffe Highway killer are repeated, almost death for death, as if to rub them in De Quincey's face.

At first, De Quincey is himself considered a suspect in the new round of bloody murders. Soon, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Emily, he is assisting Detective Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker in trying to solve the crimes. Or perhaps they are assisting him, so sharp is his mind, at least when he has access to a steady supply of laudanum.

Morrell, a literature professor before he became a best-selling author of thrillers (beginning with First Blood), became a Thomas De Quincey scholar before beginning this series of novels, and it shows in the detail he provides about De Quincey and his times. Also, Morrell provides his readers with a short history lesson at the beginning of virtually every chapter, writing about the London police force, the popularity of laudanum as a pain reliever in De Quincey's day, the spread of cholera in London in the middle of the 19th century and other topics relating to his story.

"Murder as a Fine Art" may be a violent novel, especially in the initial chapter, but it is an unusually fine mystery, one that may inspire some of us to seek out some of Thomas De Quincey's work. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Nov 30, 2016 |
Murder as a Fine Art - David Morrell
4 stars

Conan Doyle refers to De Quincey’s essay ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ in The Man With the Twisted Lip, one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.This book is set at least 30 years before the first Conan Doyle story, but I think Holmes would appreciate De Quincey's amatuer investigation. David Morrell makes De Quincey (and his opium addiction) the driving force of this gruesome murder mystery. The crimes follow a known pattern, documented by De Quincey in another essay, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. The murders are brutal and described in bloody detail.
(I did not read this book at bedtime.)

This was a suspenseful mystery that was filled with interesting historical details of the mid-19th century. Scotland Yard is in its infancy. London’s fledgling police force is clumsy and subject to corruption. Morrell is clearly looking at the underside of Victorian England; from the prevalence of laudanum addiction among the gentry to England’s role in the opium trade. I enjoyed the way he inserted historical statistics and cultural minutia into each chapter.

If the setting was realistically gothic, I thought Morrell’s characters were less believable. The police detectives, Ryan and Becker, were likable ‘good cops’,but nothing original. De Quincey’s bluestocking daughter stretched my credibility, but I couldn’t help liking her. The arbitrary conflict with the imperious Lord Palmerston was an awkward and contrived plot device.

The book had some annoying flaws, but that didn’t prevent me from anxiously turning the pages hoping that the heroes would triumph. It was a very satisfying historical mystery. ( )
  msjudy | Sep 19, 2016 |
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell is simply fine art. This is historical mystery at its best. Morrell deserves to be ranked with the best writers in this sub-genre. It is a face-paced murder tale, full of action sequences that are vital and real, set in London during the 1850s. With a rich cast of characters and vivid detail the period is real, dark and threatening.

Gruesome murders have been committed in the exact manner of murders committed forty-three years earlier. Thomas De Quincey had written an essay in which the murders were graphically described. (They are graphically described in this book as well, so this is not a book for the squeamish sleuth.) He is addicted to laudanum and now becomes the chief suspect in the current murders. The Scotland Yard men finally come to recognize that De Quincey, and his daughter Emily, are in fact resources that can help them solve the case.

The book is quite simply: perfect and the sequel, Inspector of the Dead, is equally so. ( )
  mysterymax | Sep 11, 2016 |
I actually read this some time ago. I remember thinking that I liked the ending. I never guessed who real person was that actually committed the murders. I checked the book out again to refresh my memory before I read the next one. ( )
  EmpressReece | Aug 22, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
This novel has touches of an historical police procedural, a bit of Sherlock Holmesian-detecting, plenty of gore, and literary style. It’s hard to believe it’s the same author who gave us Rambo, although after reading this delightful mystery it’s only natural to assume that the book is better than the movie.
added by KelMunger | editLit/Rant, Kel Munger (Jul 19, 2013)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Morrellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Anderson, Peggy LeithProofreadersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Drennan, WilliamCopy editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tanner, MattCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wellman, IlonaCover photographsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yankus, MarcCover photo-illustrationsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It is long since we read Thomas De Quincey, but his bloody horrors are still fresh and, to this day, terrible in their power. For long after we read him, every night brought a renewal of the most real shuddering, the palsying dread, and the nightmares with which our first reading of him cursed us.
British Quarterly Review, 1863
To Robert Morrison and Grevel Lindop

For guiding my journey into all things Thomas De Quincey
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Titian, Reubens, and Van Dyke, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Thomas De Quincey, best known for his memoir Confessions of an Opium Eater, is the prime suspect in a series of ferocious London murders. The blueprint for the crimes seems to be De Quincey's satire "On Murder Considered to be One of the Fine Arts." Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his brilliant and devoted daughter Emily and a pair of tenacious Scotland Yard detectives.
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"Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir, 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater', is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier...Desperate to clearl his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives." --inside front cover.… (more)

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